A plan, not a resolution

An Antonov AN-24 sits in Santa Clara, Cuba to serve as a bar and restaurant
An Antonov AN-24 sits in Santa Clara, Cuba to serve as a bar and restaurant

I’m really not one for New Year’s resolutions. I don’t think we need a specific time or point to define a change in our behavior. If there is something worth changing then it is worth changing when you think about it, not next week, next month or next year. Still, my friend Ed asked me what my travel resolution was for 2017 and he caught me at an interesting point where I somewhat had an answer. I was reflecting on my travels from 2016 and how much I mostly enjoyed them and how I wanted it to continue to improve. And one thing stuck out in my mind about how to do that: interact more along the way.

If I’m going to be away from home another 150 days this year (and I hope I’m not; that was probably too much for me) then I need to make that time away better. For me that means engaging more and understanding what the customs and behaviors are. Not just picking up the street food in the tourist areas but trying to get to the next level down where I can engage with people as I travel. As I was putting together my year-end retrospective last week and Ed asked about it I came up with a couple specific, recent examples that I thought were worth sharing.

Lanterns in Thailand

I firmly believe food is a great window in to a culture. And I’m relatively flexible in my choices on that front. But a year ago, on New Year’s Eve, I was sitting in Chiang Mai with wonderful friends at a fancy dinner, one that I’m not so sure really qualifies as a local experience. Maybe that’s a bad bias on my part for thinking that the northern Thai people don’t enjoy fine French cuisine. Or maybe the price-point of the meal was such that it is hard for me to imagine most Thai families being able to afford such (still way cheaper than a NYE event for me at home, but it was definitely not cheap).

Fancy dinners are great, but they rarely lead to cultural immersion
Fancy dinners are great, but they rarely lead to cultural immersion

Our group of friends spent the evening laughing, drinking and eating our way to midnight. The food was spectacular and the staff was top notch. And then, a few minutes before the year rolled into 2016, we all went outside into the restaurant’s parking lot where the dynamics shifted in a wonderful way.

Celebrating the new year with the restaurant staff was a tremendous experience
Celebrating the new year with the restaurant staff was a tremendous experience

The couple dozen guests and a couple dozen staff members began to mix more as we awaited the appointed hour. Conversations were more lively and firecrackers were lit. For me the defining moment was when the floating lanterns were brought into play. Lighting them is very much a local custom but also one that visitors are invited to partake in. And we did. It was new and exciting and interesting. And we got to do it with the other families and staff who were still there that night. That last bit really defined the moment for me.

And cramming in to the tuk-tuk for the ride home certainly didn’t hurt the experience.

Tuk-tuk all the way home...
Tuk-tuk all the way home. Somewhere between kitch and traditional, but it got the job done.

Beer in Cuba

Serendipity plays a large part in amazing local interactions in my experience. Maybe that’s because I don’t plan enough but it mostly seems to work for me. Turning the corner on a random street in Santa Clara, Cuba, I was expecting to find a restaurant written up in a guide book as a great seafood shop. Alas, we saw no restaurant. Did we read the map wrong? Were we on the wrong street? Maybe just walk another block that direction and see if they moved nearby? Well, the restaurant didn’t move as best as we could tell, but just up the block was something event better.

Riding in the left seat of the Antonov An-24 bar in Santa Clara, Cuba
Riding in the left seat of the Antonov An-24 bar in Santa Clara, Cuba

Sitting on the side of the road was an old Cubana MI-8 helicopter. Behind it sat a Cubana Cargo Antonov An-24. We were giddy.

Inside the Antonov An-24 bar in Santa Clara, Cuba
Inside the Antonov An-24 bar in Santa Clara, Cuba

The aircraft were converted into restaurants. Ice cream was served from the helicopter while the Antonov was fitted with tables and a bar. I know that this is not a typical Cuban outing; the price point on the beer was such that I doubt many locals could afford to visit ever. But there was one local family inside relaxing and enjoying a visit from some of their extended family that lived elsewhere. And the father in that group spoke just enough English to help translate our bar order (though we still ended up with way more beer than expected).

We had our drinks and they had theirs. The conversations were mostly isolated as neither of us spoke enough of the other language to make that work too well. But we chatted a little bit, just enough to scratch the surface and make me wish I could do more.

What’s next?

My “resolution” that I shared with Ed was “choosing to push my comfort boundaries and engage with locals around the world.” Maybe that will be via food. Maybe via other things. And maybe I’ll fail at it miserably. It is much harder to do when so many trips are “hit-and-run” with short stops wherever the destination may be.

But I’m going to try. And for a relatively shy guy that’s a big step forward.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. “relatively shy guy” at the end made me laugh, then think, because I would describe myself the same way, yet almost anyone I come into contact with assumes I am very extroverted for traveling so much and exploring new places. That used to be a pretty solitary activity for me, though, and part of what I enjoy about travel is the opportunity for self-reflection and time to think outside the bounds of what I am usually doing. In any case, I appreciated the sentiment of your post!

    1. Introverted might be a better word than shy. I’m extremely introverted. It makes the interactions much, much more challenging for me. But I’m going to try.

    2. This is interesting. I always see you as MUCH more of a party animal than I am – which you very well may be – but I’m definitely a strong extrovert in the classical definition of the term, i.e. I gain rather than expend energy by socializing.

    3. I’m with you Seth. Introverted here and some interactions with other people can be draining. I get cultural assimilation by limiting my time in heavily tourist areas and spending more time understanding how people live. To some degree I think that’s how my transition to living in Shanghai went easily.

  2. This post reminded me of something that happened in Barcelona a few years back.

    I was being treated at an incredibly upscale restaurant. The thing I remember was that a side of asparagus was 25€ – and it got you two whole spears.

    The food was amazing and the sommelier was fantastic. We ate and drank and talked, but like you write, it wasn’t terribly local. Nonetheless, a good time was had by all and I felt we really made a connection with sommelier.

    When it was time to go back to the hotel, we walked as it was a very nice evening. The walk took us through a neighborhood that was a lot less upscale than where the restaurant was and a whole lot more local.

    As we waited to cross the street, I looked into the greasy spoon hamburger joint on the corner. Through the window I saw Alberto our sommelier with a burger in his hand and a beer in the glass in front of him.

    He recognized me and waved. We couldn’t go in that night, but for sure we made it back the next day, And again, a good time was had by all.

  3. Too much beer reminds me of the time in Israel when I accidentally asked at a bakery for 30 (awesome) chocolate chip cookies, rather than 3, and was too embarrassed to admit the mistake when I saw them shoveling cookies into a big box. I did become very popular when I got back to kibbutz where I was living.

  4. Thanks for sharing that. I have been thinking about similar things, but mine is more about the people you meet along the way and the people that are in your life who have moved to faraway places.

    1. I love that idea, too. I got to three different weddings of friends & family in 2016, covering Florida, Bangkok and Portland. Those were great visits. I also spent time in Bangkok (on a different trip) with the friends who now live in Chiang Mai and who coordinated that NYE dinner. Drinks in Oslo and Stockholm or seeing a cousin for the first time in 10+ years in Shanghai of all places. It all works great.

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